Usability for the Proposal Process

A while ago I was looking to hire a Usability firm to help redesign one of the web systems I’m in charge of at my job. Not having hired one of these companies before I decided to search the internets for someone that would do a halfway decent job.

When it comes to hiring vendors, I’m one picky guy — it can take me weeks (or months) of researching to find the right one and this was no different. My initial search consisted of filtering out companies that were outside of my budget. This was harder than you might think as hardly anyone wants to show you pricing information on their marketing sites.

After several days of searching I narrowed it down to a list of 3 companies. So the next step was to request a proposal from these companies. What happened next shows exactly how the proposal process itself can cost you web design projects.

The Automated Proposal

The first company had an RFP (Request for Proposal) form that asked some questions about the project and emailed me a proposal — five minutes later! Yeah, I’m not kidding about that. My project was so much like everything else they didn’t even need a human being to look at it.

This from a company specializing on usability? Fantastic.

The first few pages of this proposal consisted of marketing garbage that I quickly skipped through. The meat of the proposal consisted of a 50k estimate that was automatically generated based on the questions I had answered. How’s that for understanding project needs?

Yeah so you probably guessed that I didn’t pick this company to handle my project.

I’m all for automating mundane tasks and running an efficient operation; automating proposals like this is not the way to do it!

More is Better, Right?

For the next one, I had to email a description of my project to receive a phone call from a salesperson. This was lots of fun. Who wouldn’t want to hear a salesperson talk for 45 minutes? Yeah, this interview took 45 minutes. 20 minutes going over their company history, 15 minutes of grilling me about my budget and 10 minutes of going over project details.

After he was through, he promised to email me a proposal and call me back so we could review it together. I politely told him I preferred to review it alone and that I would email him back if I was interested.

The next day I received the completed proposal. It was about thirty pages long.

Thirty pages with a three page cover letter. A three page cover letter? Yeah right. I don’t even read one page cover letters.

So I did what web surfers do and skiped through the crap to try and find the important stuff. After a few minutes I realized that starting at page 15, the important stuff was sprinkled throughout the proposal. Meaning that I would have to carefully sort through pages of fluff to read what I was looking for.

Yep, you can guess where this one went. I didn’t even bother.

Too much fluff, both on the phone and on paper. It’s a really bad way to sell your web design services, but a great way to get people to avoid having any sort of contact with you again.

A Simple but Effective Proposal Process

The last company had a simple form that asked me a few questions. Not as many questions as the first company and I had to actually write a summary of the project, so I figured a human being would be looking at it this time around.

I received an email a couple of hours later asking for more information. Nothing long, just more details on what we were trying to accomplish, who were our competitors and what sort of timeframe I had in mind.

Soon after I received another email asking for a phone call to go over the project and make sure we were on the same page. After my previous experience I was a little hesitant but I agreed nonetheless.

The phone call took a little over 20 minutes and was entirely about the project.All the right questions were asked, and it merely served to communicate things that would be too wordy or difficult to say through email.

Later that day I received a completed proposal — 2 pages long. The proposal was barely more than a quote but I didn’t mind at all.

It had one brief paragraph summarizing the project and then had a table listing the services that would be performed, prices and projected timeline. Very short and efficient. I was impressed.

There was nothing canned about this. Almost every single word on the proposal was specific to my project. The price was slightly over my budget but I went through the extra effort to sell it to the execs because I felt the vendor really understood what I wanted to accomplish.

Final Thoughts

There you have it, two examples of a bad proposal process and one example of a very good one. Why was it good? Because it gave me something I was looking for.

It made me feel that they understood what I wanted to accomplish and knew exactly how to go about doing that. And they did all of this without wasting my time.

The proposal process starts with the RFP and ends with the proposal document. That’s the last chance you have to convince someone you can solve their problem.

You’ll be judged at every step of the process so pay attention to how you start your process as much as how you finish it.

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